Challenging Stereotypes

The misleading stereotypes in Indian imagery did not go unchallenged by Native people in the Midwest. The Chicago Exposition in 1893, which attempted to bolster the image of the United States as a progressive, industrial society by contrasting a “civilized” America with the “primitive” non-Western world, received a critique from Simon Pokagon (1830-99), a Potawatomi from Michigan. He pointed out that the Expo’s image of the Native people of the Midwest was not representative of modern Indians.

Charles Eastman (1858-1939), a Dakota from Minnesota, spoke at the Expo, as well. He explained Dakota philosophy and portrayed it as worthy of respect. Eastman—an alumnus of Indian boarding schools, Dartmouth College, and Boston University Medical School—used his ability as a lecturer and writer to try to counter negative stereotypes by promoting positive images of Native people in his children’s books and magazine articles. In the early 20th century, when Americans embraced an “outdoor movement” to invigorate national character through summer camps, national parks, and children’s scouting programs, he got involved. He not only operated a summer camp where children learned to appreciate “nature” and “Indian lore”; in 1914, he also wrote the guide book, Indian Scout Trails for the Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls.

Indian organizations founded in the early 20th century worked to educate Americans about Indians—that they could be contributing citizens and that their treaty rights should be respected. The Brotherhood of North American Indians and the Society of American Indians, both established in 1911 but fairly short-lived, had several leaders from the Great Lakes region.

A counterpoint to the long tradition of Indian-themed public monuments that reinforced stereotypes of Indians is the mural, “Indian Land Dancing,” on the Foster Street underpass in Chicago. This 3,200 square feet mural is the city’s largest direct-application mosaic. It is made of hundreds of glass and ceramic tiles. During the summer of 2009, local artists and youths from a family agency in Chicago cut and applied tile, sculpted clay, and painted the concrete walls. The residents of the area (which is the part of town with the largest American Indian community) donated money and tiles. In contrast to the Indian-themed statues throughout Chicago, this is the only public art project in the city that is designed and executed by Native Americans. It depicts a mix of modern and historic themes.

Challenges to Indian stereotypes sometimes involved public protest about non-Indian projects. The most recent example is the controversy over Indian imagery used by athletic teams, but Native people also object to the use of Indian imagery by the U. S. military and by advertisers. Efforts of Native people to represent themselves accurately and appropriately received new energy from the sovereignty movement that began in the 1970s. Today, tribal museums are part of this effort.

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